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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com
Still Divided Northern Ireland's Uneasy Peace


Interviews with Gerry Adams and David Trimble

By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff

BELFAST -- Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble have come to embody the political movements they represent as Northern Ireland struggles to find a way forward.

Five years after the Good Friday agreement, both men agree that once again Northern Ireland is at a fateful crossroads. But both men have very different views on what has brought them to yet another political crisis on the long road to peace.

The Boston Globe interviewed the two leaders at length last month. The interviews took place at their respective party headquarters. The settings seemed to reflect the way their two parties have accrued power and gained maturity within the framework of the historic 1998 peace agreement, an accord that both men played pivotal roles in drafting.

At his sprawling new headquarters, Trimble -- whose predominantly Protestant party seeks to preserve Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom -- took questions in an elegant conference room with the smell of the new royal blue carpet wafting in the air and amid the shine of polished silver candelabras and cut crystal serving bowls.

Adams spoke from his office on the predominantly Catholic Falls Road. It used to be a cramped office in a crumbling block of row house among the constituents of Sinn Fein -- the republican party allied with the IRA and which seeks to end British rule and unite Ireland. Sinn Fein's old building was knocked down and the new party headquarters was rebuilt in a bright, airy modern building that now resembles an insurance office but still looks out over the same run down housing blocks of the Falls Road.

The Good Friday agreement the two men helped to broker created a power sharing government known as the Northern Ireland Assembly. Amid a political crisis and a spying scandal, the British government suspended the Assembly this year and set a date for a new election in May. Meanwhile, the British government expected the IRA to make an unambiguous commitment to ending its military struggle. When their statement came out in April, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said it fell far short of his expectations and canceled the May 29 elections.

Following are excerpts from the interviews.

 David Trimble
 Ulster Unionist Party leader
Globe Photo / Crispin Rodwell

Q: Five years on, is Good Friday a success or a failure?

A: "I would keep away from those terms. We knew at the time of the agreement that it was a roadmap, a very broad-brushed one, and there was a lot of work to be done... We're now five years on and the implementation is not complete and it has taken longer than I thought it would. You look at a question such as the complete disarmament of all paramilitary groups which was supposed to be completed by May 2000, and we've only scratched the surface of that issue... With the best will in the world, you would need two years to get that done... So in that sense, as I say, the process has taken longer, it has spun on much longer. You're looking at five to ten years to get it finished... . However, and it's a very big however, you're quite right to say that the agreement has already made huge changes in the way politics is conducted and the way society is functioning. And the nature of those changes are such I think that no one contemplates a return to the status quo ante the agreement, ante the ceasefires... My own personal view is that the uneven progress we've had over the last five years will continue. It'll be slow. It'll be uneven. It'll be fits and starts with intervals in between."

Q: What is the most significant change for the better for the people of Northern Ireland that the Good Friday agreement has brought about?

A: "The whole pattern of social movement and activity has changed dramatically, and changed most dramatically for the young. That is huge for young people to be able to go downtown in Belfast which has come alive again. Some of the interface areas are now worse than they were in 1998. This is a paradoxical consequence of the ending of terrorism because when terrorism was operating the interface areas were areas of explosions and ambushes. They were deserted. People were afraid to go near them because they were too dangerous. Now you don't risk being shot or blown up and so people will move into those areas again."

Q: Did the British government's decision to cancel the elections undercut Northern Ireland's newly formed democratic institutions?

A: "Our democracy does not depend on this Assembly, our democracy is still in its infant stages, and this is the problem. You cannot turn around and regard this as if it was a mature and established institution in respect of which the normal rules should apply come hell or high water. This is still the difficult business of getting a rather complex arrangement into place, and until we have done that satisfactorily we have to proceed with care."

Q: What is it going to take to bring about more profound change, for there to be a real breakthrough?

A: "You know it is almost an article of faith with [Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin] McGuinness and Adams that they're never going to change, they're never going to say, "Sorry." They're never going to say that anything they did in the past wasn't right and proper... You know [South African leader Nelson] Mandela did not come out of prison saying armed struggle was right and those people who were killing whites were right. Mandela came out of prison with a completely different message, which was one of peace and reconciliation."

Q: Do you think a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission could work in Northern Ireland?

A: "I'm a bit dubious about the process in theory. We did mention this during the talks, and during the talks there was a consensus that the best thing is to draw a line and move on and not to constantly scratch at the wound and reopen them... When we say draw the line and move on we're saying Ok, there may still be some things we have to tidy up and deal with but what we want to do is focus society's attention not on the past but on the future."

Q: Are you worried about the marching season triggering violence this summer?

A: "Well, it happened last summer. Now last summer was really bad. It was worse than previous years. I actually suspect the fact that this summer it will not be as bad."

 Gerry Adams
 Sinn Fein president
Globe Photo / Crispin Rodwell

Q: Five years after the Good Friday agreement would you say it is largely a success or largely a failure?

A: "Even though the process is in a mess at the moment, we are still in a far better place than we were five years ago, and an unimaginable place from where we were ten years ago. There are hundreds of people who would be dead who are still alive because of the process. And even with a process that is painfully slow, it is far better than most other conflict resolution processes."

Q: What is the most important way in which the Good Friday agreement has changed life for people in Northern Ireland?

A: "We don't have as many funerals. The reality is that we used to burry people, and burry them in large numbers. ... The most significant fact is that people generally speaking have signed on for this process... I know that is arguable within elements of unionism, but even those who are against it are against parts of it. Another important aspect is people socializing, young people going off to discos are going to Belfast city center without the daily presence of a threat of bullets and bombs. I think that probably extends through all aspects of social life for the vast majority. For a minority who live in interface areas of course things have gotten worse. There wasn't a blockade of a school for the past 30 years, but we've had the blockade at the Holy Cross blockade. Obviously conditions in areas like the Short Strand are worse than they were even in the 1970s."

Q: What do you make of the current political crisis?

A: "I think the crisis we are having at the moment is actually a political crisis which is quite differently than the crises we have had for the last 20 or 30 years. During that time, events were dictated by armed groups, from the establishment, the British government, the IRA, the loyalists... For the past five years, the events are dictated by the politicians. ... This is a very dangerous moment because the political process is not anchored. The elections were canceled, as we were told to, "assist David Trimble." It was obvious it wasn't going to assist David Trimble to any one with any common sense. Even the democratic imperative of elections aside, just to deal with it on a tactical basis, there has been another heave against him. It has only encouraged the rejectionists in his party."

Q: How do you respond to those who say that the current political crisis is the result of the IRA's failure to carry out acts of decommissioning or making a clear statement ending the struggle, "acts of completion," as Blair called them?

A: "What specifically the British government has done, is to waste an historic opportunity. It will be very difficult to recreate, and I think they know that... . The IRA came up with a statement on April 13. And, essentially the government rejected it. My sense is there was enough in those statements for both governments and anyone with any sense of how you resolve conflict. I think there was then a very public attempt to shoehorn or to force the IRA into doing things it very clearly wasn't going to do. There was never a possibility of getting the IRA statement written by somebody at 10 Downing St. ... Blair made it very, very clear that what was done wasn't, from his point of view, good enough. ... Well, when you reject something that means it is off the table. Things have become harder. Things have become polarized."

Q: So what is the way forward out of the crisis?

A: "If there is to be a new context to be established, the only way I can see it, is for the elections to take place. Whatever happens, the people have their say, the politicians make their pitch, parties get their mandate, and then they come back together again to work it out."

Q: What are your thoughts about recent calls for a truth and reconciliation commission?

A: "I think everyone has a right to the truth. ... I accept absolutely that the republicans are responsible, that the republicans have killed people, that we were part of the problem and have to be part of the solution. The unionists don't accept that hey were part of the problem, they don't even accept that there was discrimination ... I am all for people telling the truth, I am for closure... The example people use is South Africa. So let me address that. That was a sovereign government in South Africa that established that. We are not a sovereign government.... The timing of something like that would be of crucial importance."

Q: Are you worried about violence this summer?

A: "We've made a lot of hard, practical efforts to make sure that this is a calm summer and that the interface violence we have seen for two summers is as calm as we can make it... . The mood music is better than it was before."